The King and UsAugust 17, 2011
The King has always held a special place in Cambodian’s hearts, and by this I don’t mean one particular king, but the idea in general. This is despite the job historically being a dangerous occupation, with all sorts of jealous contenders and potential usurpers waiting around to strike.
The more recent Kings have all come from the Sisowath or Norodom families and it’s interesting that unlike the European Aristocracy, the lineage becomes meaningless after three generations of removal, and members of royalty are downgraded to commoners, with no special treatment anymore.
Norodom Sihanouk was ordained as King during the French Vichy period, at time when France had capitulated to Nazi Germany and the Vichy French were actively helping the Axis. This had little bearing on Cambodia, which was rather under joint Japanese Imperial/Vichy administration at the time. Up north, the Thais had taken an early opportunity to re-annex Battambang and Siem Reap provinces, and were occupying a stretch of the north reaching right into Stung Treng province. (They had actually controlled much of the then Battambang and Siem Reap provinces from the late 1700s right up till a 1907 agreement with France, so probably felt they had some rights on the place.)
I say this because in the earlier period of Thai control, it was just a matter of which tax was going where, and there was little interference in local customs, whereas the WWII occupation saw an enforced Thai-zation policy, where Cambodians were forced to adopt Thai customs and language.
Meanwhile back in Phnom Penh, the seat of the throne was vacant, and the young, seemingly docile and compliant Norodom Sihanouk was chosen over the more perhaps difficult contender from the Sisowath clan. In fact, he proved to be anything but, and skillfully steered his country towards a very peaceful independence in 1954.
Relations with France and the US remained good, and some productive developments and facilities such as the Sihanoukville Port and Highway were completed in this early period. Sihanouk abdicated in the late 50s to become involved in politics and the running of the country, rather than accept the stifled and rather ceremonial role of constitutional monarch. and his father took the title for a few years.
As regional politics changed, and especially after a couple of assassination attempts which killed at least one of his close entourage or family, he decided he didn’t want US aid anymore. At the this point in time, the Sihanoukville Highway, which had been finished a year before, got rather bashed about in the by the rainy season and the US were about to donate $10 million worth of bulldozers, graders, rollers and plant to a road maintenance/ upgrading scheme. Unfortunately a side effect of the King turning his back on the USA was that that program got cancelled, and the equipment got auctioned off to private businesses.
China came into the picture and helped build the Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville railway, and also helped in the creation of a large range of different industrial facilities in the country during this period. A lot of progress was made in this time, and the country seemed to be avoiding most of the destruction that was engulfing its neighbors, but it was inevitable that Cambodia was going to be drawn into a war whose supply lines stretched across it, and out of it. The government had been ostensibly neutral, but the reality was that after few years without US backing, the army wasn’t up to much and they didn’t have a great deal of choice other than to comply and/or benefit from trade with the Vietnamese troops using their ground as a sanctuary.
With hindsight Sihanouk’s rule is often thought of in retrospect as a “golden age”, but the reality of course was that it was not all sweetness and light. Lee, the founder of modern Singapore, visited Phnom Penh in the early 60s and greatly admired Sihanouk’s vision. At the time most of Singapore was still a rats-nest of piers and debauchery, and Lee decided to emulate Sihanouk’s vision, although early on decided to at least try to enforce more discipline than he saw in Cambodia, which was maybe seemed too relaxed for him or something.
There has always been huge welcomes for Sihanouk and his family in China, which is completely understandable as it has never failed him and been his home for much of his later life. On the other hand he has also maintained a palace in Pyongyang where he has spent much time too. One reason for this was that unlike many other leaders, he had not deposited huge sums of most-likely pilfered money in foreign bank-accounts, so had little choice other than to accept the gratitude of these nations.